Thursday, August 28, 2014

Your Really Might Not Be Worthless 2014 NFC Predictions

My Method
Last year's columns predicted, I kid you not, all kinds of great stuff. Peyton Manning as AFC MVP, Pete Carroll as coach of the year, Eddie Lacy as the NFC Rookie of the Year, stay awaus from Cecil Shorts and Stephen Jackson, seven out of 16 playoff teams and the Super Bowl winner, albeit over Cincy instead of Denver. I liked Chicago too much (defensible given the injury issues), but otherwise everything was skittles and beer. And then the season started, and the fantasy team tanked, and the picks were even worse, with a final record of 120-129-10.

This year, the fantasy team seems better, we've got a much better idea of what a Chip Kelly team will look like, and the Super Bowl teams look even better than they did last year. The odds of a repeat champion have rarely been lower, and the really scary thing about Seattle is that they might not have reached their peak yet. It's looking like a chalk year in the conference to me. But there's four months between now and then, and every NFL team is a handful of injuries away from irrelevance.

But, well, you've got to predict, right? Otherwise you can't prove you are smarter than anyone else. When the very act itself proves that you are dumber...

NFC East

Philadelphia 10-6
New York 8-8
Dallas 7-9
Washington 6-10

The Eagles are a better team in a lot of ways than the 2013 edition. The most profound improvement is on special teams, where the coverage teams are going to be dramatically better, but the defensive secondary should also take a step up with Marlon Jenkins and Nolan Carroll. On the down side will be the offense, which is in a transition era at WR, and with an aging OL that isn't going to stay healthy. Overall depth is better, and the team is closer to the Kelly Ideal of hyper-conditioned compliant players with versatility.

The problem is that while they will be better, the schedule is going to make them look worse, and they didn't do enough to close the gap on the conference's top teams. Winning the division isn't enough; you also need to be a top 2 seed, and in a world with Seattle, New Orleans and Green Bay, not having home field advantage is a total non-starter. There will also be regression on turnover luck, better planning from opponents, and real struggles for QB Nick Foles when the world figures out that single press coverage on the wideouts is the only way to go with this kind of explosive running attack. But this is the only good team in the weakest division in football, and they'll repeat as division champs.

Second place will go to New York, where a good defense and some solid overall talent is being counterfeited by terrible QB play and an elderly coach that's coasting off a couple of fluke SB wins. They'll go as far as QB Eli Manning will prevent let them, which really isn't far enough. Third goes to Dallas, who almost have to be better on defense somehow, and will waste some of the best weapons in the game with an offensive line that won't keep their QB clean. DC will bring up the rear with a stars and scrubs roster with not good enough stars, and scrubs that shouldn't be in the NFL. They'll distract everyone by blaming the QB, because that's what terrible organizations do.

NFC North

Green Bay 11-5
Chicago 10-6 *
Detroit 7-9
Minnesota 6-10

The follow of predicting NFL seasons is writ large  in the NFC North, where the division is almost always decided by injuries to the offensive line of Green Bay or Chicago. I'll take Green Bay since their defense has a higher ceiling, and QB Jay Cutler can't seem to stay healthy, but if these conditions reverse, so should the division. As for the Pack, there are additional reasons to take them over the Bears, not including a better home field advantage and more experienced coaching, but it's close.

As for the Bears, there isn't a better WR 1/2 combo, and RB Matt Forte is top shelf as well. But the defense and special teams were terrible last year and might not improve much, and last year's dramatic improvement on the OL might regress. I still think they are going to be a major force in fantasy, if nowhere else. Detroit is trying to instill a new era of discipline and smart play with a new cadaverish-coach (Jim Caldwell, last seen sleep-tanking the Colts to Andrew Luck), but the inmates run this asylum, and aren't going to be here too much longer. Bringing up the rear is Minnesota, who will again prove that you can't win in the NFL without a QB, but will scare the hell out of teams that have to play them. Adrian Peterson is nobody's idea of easy, and Cordarelle Patterson is going to make a lot of noise as well.

NFC South

New Orleans 12-4
Atlanta 10-6
Carolina 8-8
Tampa 5-11

This might be the last best chance for Drew Brees to add a second Super Bowl ring. The running backs are better, the WR corps is deeper, TE Jimmy Graham is healthy, and the defense took a strong step up last year. If they didn't run into turnover trouble, they might have actually taken Seattle out at home, and I really love WR Brandin Cooks. The only trouble is that Brees is 35, has started to show badly in road games, and might not stay healthy. But when they are good, they might be the best team in football. The trick will be to time it for the last six weeks of the year.

Atlanta hit free-fall last year, and while they weren't as good as their record in past years, they weren't as bad last year, either. I'm looking for last gasp years from WR Roddy White and RB Stephen Jackson, a better performance than last year's turnstile OL, and a defense that still can't rush the passer enough to scare good teams. They'll benefit from a surprisingly weak division. Next up will be the very disappointing Panthers, who will demonstrate why defense isn't as consistent from year to year as offense, and will have major issues if QB Cam Newton isn't an MVP candidate... and he's hurt now and has a weak WR corps otherwise, so it's not looking good. Tampa will try to win games by throwing jump balls to huge WRs, and it won't work because that kind of play requires enough time to get the play off.

NFC West

Seattle 13-3
San Francisco 11-5 *
Arizona 7-9
St. Louis 3-13

Last year, this was the best division in football, and this year, it's going to fragment. Seattle is just loaded all over, with a better offensive line, a healthy Percy Harvin, a crazy dangerous Parul Richardson if Harvin isn't available, deeper and more experienced RB work... and that's still the weaker unit to the ridiculously good defense. They aren't as deep as they used to be thanks to free agency, but they are still crazy young, deep and fantastic, and if they get better on the road and stay healthy, they might go undefeated.

San Francisco has all kinds of red flags to them; aging defense, terrible work in pre-season, shakiness about the head coach in the off-season, and a new stadium that will destroy their home field advantage for years to come. (Karmic justice!) I still think they get to the post-season, because QB Colin Kaepernick is a lot better once you give him actual WRs to throw to, and that was the case for the second half of last year, when they were the second-best team in football. If you swapped Kaepernick for Carson Palmer, I'd change the Arizona and San Francisco records, but, um, you can't... and the attempt to overcome Palmer will eventually use up RB Andre Ellington. The defense isn't as young as you'd think, either. St. Louis was going to under-achieve before they lost their QB1,and while the drop from Sam Bradford to Shaun Hill isn't that intense, they still don't have skill players to get it done, especially in this division. Oh, and the home field advantage is horrible.

NFC MVP: Aaron Rodgers
Least Valuable Player: Eli Manning
Fantasy MVP: Matt Forte
NFC Coach of the Year: Sean Payton
All-Pro QB: Rodgers, Kaepernick, Cutler
All-Pro RB: Forte, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson
All-Pro WR: Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall
All-Pro TE: Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis
Defensive Player of the Year: Gerald McCoy
NFC Rookie of the Year: Brandin Cooks

Tomorrow, the AFC and the playoff picks. Y'all come back now, ya hear?

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